Working with vintage and historical patterns can be fun and exciting. The shapes and techniques these garments require are a bit different from modern sewing, giving you a chance to explore new silhouettes and learn new skills. Of course, this also means that there are some things to be aware of before working with vintage patterns. Here are a few basic tips to make sure your vintage projects are the bees’ knees!
1. It’s okay to deviate from the instructions
Some of the materials and techniques we have today simply weren’t available when vintage patterns were developed. Iron-on interfacing, automated buttonholes, invisible zippers are just a few examples of the time- and trouble-saving advances we’ve made in recent years, and you should feel free to take advantage of them. If your pattern calls for carefully stitched muslin interfacing or a dozen tiny, hand-bound buttonholes, there’s no reason you have to follow it to the letter unless you’re striving for perfect historical accuracy.
2. Keep a reference handy
Vintage patterns come from eras when homemade clothes were the norm, and sewists were generally assumed to have a full knowledge of garment construction and techniques. That means that vintage patterns are full of jargon and terminology that can be overly complex or outdated. It’s best to keep a reference on hand for those moments you need a translation. This article contains a handy glossary, but for a more comprehensive guide, try a book about vintage sewing.
3. Practice your techniques
While there are lots of modern conveniences available to make your sewing projects simpler, sometimes a vintage garment calls for a vintage touch. Techniques like hand-bound buttonholes, while not strictly necessary, are a nice skill to have in your repertoire, and can give a special project—vintage or modern—a unique touch. Practice vintage techniques on smaller projects before diving in on something large and complex.
4. Duplicate your patterns
Vintage patterns are fragile, so the first step to starting your vintage sewing project should be to duplicate your pattern onto something more sturdy. Be careful to transfer all markings and notations to your duplicate. Not only does this allow you to preserve the original pattern, but it makes it much easier to make pattern adjustments. This can be necessary with vintage patterns not only because the fit of these garments is different than modern garments, but because vintage patterns were typically only produced in a single size per envelope. Since your size may be may tricky to find, it might be necessary to grade your pattern to get the right fit.
5. Pay attention to undergarments
It may seem strange, but in the same way that fashions have changed over the years, foundation garments have changed as well. This is especially important in historical sewing, where corsets, bustles, hoop skirts, and petticoats were crucial to achieving the appropriate silhouette. Though it’s not as dramatic with vintage patterns, do keep in mind that the shapes foundation garments were made to achieve—traditionally, slim waists and full, though not necessarily defined busts—may mean that your garments will fit differently over modern underclothes.
6. Look for vintage materials, too
While it’s fun to work with vintage patterns, why stop there? There are lots of companies that produce vintage reproduction findings, embellishments, and fabrics, which you can use to give your garments an authentic look and feel. There are also plenty of resources for finding genuine vintage fabrics, such as linens and decorating fabrics, which can be repurposed for creative new fashions. Do keep in mind, however, that vintage clothes in bold vintage fabrics can look a bit costume-y, so if your goal is to recreate vintage style with modern flair, it might be best to stick to more understated or contemporary fabric choices.
7. Read your patterns carefully
Vintage patterns will be largely familiar to modern sewists, but they’re just different enough that they can trip up even the most experienced sewists if they’re not paying attention. Be careful and read through all the instructions and diagrams that come with your pattern, making sure to look up any terms with which you’re not familiar. Check for fabric widths, seam allowances, units of measurement, and any other points that can cause particular trouble later on.
8. Know your measurements
Sewists will already be aware that commercial dress sizing and modern patterns vary widely. The difference between modern sizes and vintage sizes is similarly broad, and since vintage patterns typically aren’t graded—meaning multiple sizes weren’t printed on a single sheet—it’s important to know your size. But if vintage and modern sizes vary so greatly, how can you know what size to choose? The answer is simple. Know your measurements! For vintage patterns, the bust measurement was usually key to determining size. Use your high-bust measurement, as it’s a better indication of your overall build than your full bust measurement.
9. Try reproduction patterns
If you’re struggling to find original vintage patterns, or can’t find what you’re looking for in the right sizes, don’t be afraid to check out the many excellent reproduction patterns available on the market. These are often drafted right from the original patterns, but with the modern conveniences of familiar marking, multi-size grading, and clear seam instructions. You can practice your vintage techniques with these reproductions before moving on to genuine vintage pieces.
10. What you see may not be what you get
Vintage patterns can be found in many different places, from flea markets, thrift stores, and yard sales to dedicated online shops on Etsy or Ebay. Keep in mind, however, that it can be tricky to judge the quality of a pattern without seeing it in person. It’s also difficult to judge how easy a pattern will be to sew, or what techniques may be required. If you’re just getting started with vintage patterns, it’s best to stick to those you can examine for yourself, or to order reproduction patterns, as you can be confident that they’ll be of high quality.
11. Be aware of fabric differences
Industrial looms have gotten bigger in recent decades. Today, it’s not uncommon to have access to fabrics that are 60″ wide, but before the 1950s, many fabrics measured less than 40″ from selvedge to selvedge. When planning your fabric purchases for a vintage pattern, take the date into account. If it’s pre 1950s, you may save a lot of money (and cut down waste) by converting the yardage for modern fabric widths. You’ll also want to plan your layout carefully, as vintage patterns often didn’t include the kind of layout diagrams we’re used to today.
12. Printed versus perforated
In the early days of commercial patterns, it was tricky to print the designs onto tissue. Instead, manufacturers would pierce the pattern markings into the paper, with different perforated marks indicating seam lines, notches, and other important landmarks. It can be very tricky to adjust to this new way of navigating a pattern, especially if you’re new to using patterns in general. Pay close attention to the instructions and diagrams that come with your perforated patterns, and don’t be shy about creating a copy and marking it with your preferred techniques.
13. Double-check your seam allowances
Today, most patterns come with a built-in seam allowance of ⅜”, but that wasn’t always the case. The seam allowance of vintage patterns varies from manufacturer to manufacture, and over time as well. Some patterns don’t include seam allowance at all! Make sure to examine your pattern’s instructions and, if necessary, add or adjust your seam allowance to your preferred width.
14. Consider vintage finishing techniques
Many of the most popular vintage patterns were developed during wartime, when fabrics were being conserved for the war effort. This meant that in addition to more streamlined silhouettes, many garments were made without linings. Since this was also a time before overlock machines or sergers, seam allowances were commonly finished using rayon seam binding, lapped seams, or facings instead.
15. Vintage patterns have a vintage fit
When looking at vintage fashion plates, take a close look at the way clothes were intended to fit. The desired look was often very different, with much more ease through the bust and less through the waist than is considered appropriate today. It’s important to keep this in mind, or you may assume these differences are errors on your part rather than intrinsic features of the patterns.